Driving Rt. 50 the other day, I stopped at a traffic light in Cambridge where the McDonald’s is located. The stoplight was affixed to what appeared to be a large round aluminum arm arching across the highway. The arm swayed while gently rising and falling as if riding on the wind.
My gaze wandered.
I saw two birds behaving oddly. One flew back and forth underneath the arm. It seemed at first to be pecking at the under part of it while flying erratically – first diving under the arm and then flapping up and over it, down again, hovering in place while continuing to peck along the arm’s underside. Another bird joined it and soon both birds were engaged in these irregular sorties. It was fascinating to watch. Fortunately, the wait for the red light was substantial so I had time to enjoy their antics while trying to make sense of them. What were they doing?
Occasionally I’ve seen birds behaving oddly at my house. In certain morning light some go for the windows, even though they’ll crash into them and be stopped cold in flight. Some, bruised, might still persist. Sadly, a persistent bird or two may get knocked out when striking the glass or even kill itself. I once watched cardinals as they attacked the rear view mirrors of my parked car. I figured in both cases they were curious about their reflected image.
Waiting at the light I noticed the two bird’s beaks held either string or twigs of some sort. I knew then they were building their home, but the question remained, where? Their erratic flight patterns seemed exploratory, as if they were still checking out real estate and looking for permanent property rather than having already decided. If that were the case, carrying around building materials while still deciding where to build wouldn’t make any sense.
After the light changed, the driver behind me honked to get me moving. I accelerated slowly taking one last look underneath the traffic light’s arm and sure enough, I saw two small holes along the bottom of the arm. Then I knew the birds had been busy building their new home inside it.
One of them quickly entered a hole.
It’s spring, Easter, a time of hope and a time to build. No better time to birth and raise kids. I felt pleased for the birds. If they have no problem with the relentless traffic moving just below them – imagine summer traffic with folks from D.C. and Baltimore going ‘downee ocean,’ then building inside the traffic arm was probably the most readily accessible, cheapest and the safest building site imaginable. Overall, a wise choice.
I can’t imagine any snake who would care to go out to eat over a highway where one slip would dispatch him for sure, leaving as his legacy only a dark stain on the highway left in the trail of some SUV. And the same holds for raccoons and other predators whose own lives would be jeopardized by trying to gain access to the bird’s nest underneath the arm’s slippery slopes. I commend these birds for the care and thoughtfulness in providing a safe space for their progeny. My own children tell me that their greatest concern in today’s dangerous world is keeping their children from harm as they grow into adulthood. Today most parents escort their children almost everywhere.
Still there’s one mystery in this scenario I’m not sure I’ve fathomed. The birds had obviously staked out their claim and were in the process of building there. So, why is it they had to fly all over the place first rather than simply homing in directly on the entrance holes to commence building? It’s as if they’d left the site to get building materials and couldn’t remember how to get back. I can’t imagine birds drinking and flying much less under the influence while working on a construction job just above moving traffic. Does short term memory account for their apparent forgetfulness? Since they’re of childbearing age that makes it very unlikely.
I have read that some birds cannot see directly ahead. One eye sees what’s on the right, but the left eye only the left. Birds must turn their heads to get the whole picture, which also limits depth perception. This might explain why, when birds light anywhere, they’re constantly turning their heads this way and that to gain a clear sense of where they are. They accept their limits and do what they have to.
Birds are remarkably creative, superb craftsmen and environmentally friendly. They can transform the most unlikely places into practical and unobtrusive home sites, like the one I saw at the stop light in Cambridge. They use only recyclable materials in all their home construction. Ever inspected a bird’s nest up close? You’ll find a potpourri of leaves, old cellophane wraps, pine straw, shredded paper, small twigs, yarn, Styrofoam scraps and in one nest I once saw a paper clip – all skillfully woven to create security and comfort for the whole family without harming the environment in any way. Christians believe God does the same thing; takes the world’s throwaways and castoffs and transforms them.
Bird watching is immensely popular. Why, I’ve wondered, is it that nothing quite captures the imagination as watching a bird in flight? Birds have always been a universal symbol for divine messages and the motions of our souls. When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, John the Baptist thought it looked like a dove.
Crossing on the Bay Bridge, I have often watched gulls in flight riding effortlessly on wind gusts. Their wings barely move as the birds soar this way and that. They don’t flutter and flap. It’s like some invisible agent had carried the birds aloft, and the birds, finding themselves centered in just the right confluence of forces, let go to be safely borne along by the breath of God. It is a graceful sight.
In a troubled world like ours is today, a psalmist, mindful of birds, once offered this tender supplication: “Hide me [Lord] under the shadow of thy wings.”
Cover Illustration by Jo Merrill
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.